Anyone trying to predict the precise contours of the geopolitical landscape in the wake of the coronavirus crisis would do well to remember the warnings of the Italian poet Dante. In the 20th canto of his Inferno, Dante retained the Fourth Chasm in the Eighth Circle of the Fraudulent for ‘augurers, diviners, astrologers and prophets’, forcing them to ‘walk backwards’ for all time with their heads ‘twisted to their haunches’ as a punishment for trying to see what could not be seen.
Nevertheless, even as governments around the world do as they must in trying to contain the pandemic and minister to the welfare of their peoples, they must also, if they are to act rationally in foreign affairs, have a view of the immediate future.
Among the vital factors shaping that view must be the consequences of the coronavirus for that strain of populist nationalism that has vexed world politics in recent years, the need for governments to resist the allure of turning their backs on international cooperation, and the virus’ debilitating effect on an already ailing US-China relationship.
Australia’s challenge is not only to keep faith with the openness and internationalism that has delivered its prosperity and security over the past decades, but to disallow short-term judgments or opportunistic point-scoring to dictate to the long-term national interest, especially where that concerns its relationship with China.
And it might well use the lessons learnt from its response to the pandemic to help restore faith in the collective power of the nation state being wielded for the benefit of individualistic rights.
But what needs to be considered first, even if tentatively, is whether or not we are dealing with an event that may so disturb the existing system that nations will be forced to go back to the drawing board to make sense of the future.
Perhaps the most dominant theme in the discussion of world affairs in recent years is that we live in an ‘age of uncertainty’. While all generations are prone to believe that they are living through the most profound period of unsettling change in human history, the sudden coming of the Coronavirus has delivered one of the most profound jolts in living memory to the social fabric and each individual’s very sense of security.
Following hard on the heels of longstanding disputes over climate change action and inaction, not to mention the turmoil of the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and the disruption occasioned by the election of Donald Trump to the White House and Brexit, COVID-19 intensifies the perception of drift and distress in governance and administrative competence.
This makes the difficulty of understanding what it might all mean for international affairs all the more challenging. There are certain events, which so disturb the existing system that nations are compelled to go back to the drawing board to make sense of the future.
In the 20th century, World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Rise of Fascism, the post-World War II Soviet-American confrontation and the Asian and African rebellion against Western imperialism were just such world-shaking events.
American global leadership trashed
When faced by these paradigm-breaking historical circumstances, nations were compelled to rethink the whole picture of international relations. Scholars and commentators felt moved to revisit the past in the broadest possible way to provide new patterns of understanding for the future and thereby to help governments make sense of the new order of things.
We are not yet at such a moment. But how countries respond to the aftermath of this globe-shaking event may well mean it becomes so.
What can be said with some certainty now is that the response to the pandemic has revealed the hollowness of the populist conceit. Trump as its figurehead has been perhaps the most woeful of all world leaders in his response to the calamity, initially treating it with an almost wanton disregard and contempt.
The idea of American global leadership has once again been trashed.
Populists elsewhere, such as Britain’s Boris Johnson or India’s Narendra Modi, were also slow out of the blocks.
So adept at fanning the flames of grievance in promoting their cause du jour and furnishing their rise to power, they have in this instance been shown to have feet of clay, this at the very time when consistent, competent and reassuring leadership has been most in demand. It has been said before, but bears repeating: there are no Churchills or Roosevelts lurking among these poseurs.
The jury is, of course, still out here. One problem is that in many of the countries where the populists have ridden the wave of electoral angst to power, the establishment has rarely if ever thrown up a credible alternative. If the crisis is successfully contained, and soon, populists will crow victory. They might even brandish it as proof that that when the crunch came, their style of leadership delivered. Their atavistic world-view would claim vindication. Protectionism would be in the ascendant, insularity seen as entirely justifiable. For the moment, Trump maintains his standing in the polls on coronavirus management, though this may well prove to be a transient benefit of incumbency.
But if the crisis drags on, if more lives are lost, economies ground down and livelihoods overturned, governments are going to have to do more, not less, and for longer, in terms of intervening to buttress the social safety net and rebuild each country’s fiscal credibility.
That in itself lends an opportunity for more centrist political leaders to begin the process of reconfiguring the nation-state to meet this century’s new circumstances. Given that the rise of populism over the past decade is broadly attributable to a widespread feeling that governments have been inattentive to the day-to-day needs of their people, the response to COVID-19 may, in time, help inspire more faith in the capacity of national governments to deliver for the most basic needs of their electorates.
This is not to say that the extraordinary economic measures we have seen will necessarily continue indefinitely into the recovery phase. How the massive state intervention is wound back in the aftermath of the crisis – at what rate and in what form – will itself bring on its own round of partisan, ideological fury.
The recovery from the coronavirus will be as contested as the response to it. And it is here too that administrations around the world, including the Morrison government, will have to ensure that the dynamics of international coordination and cooperation – so little evidenced to date in taking on this pandemic – triumph over the impulse to withdraw into a fortress Australia mentality, especially on the matter of global supply chains.
Compared with how the global financial crisis (GFC) was handled in 2008-09, this is already looking to be a tall order: Trump is not disposed to a constructive leadership role for the United States, and US-China friction, along with America’s troubled relations with Europe, point to a rocky recovery path.
The encumbrance of massive debt, too, is likely to limit the reach of a new US administration of whatever stripe. Coalitions in which the United States may participate but is not the primary actor must play a more decisive role.
To date the crisis has done little to alleviate the mutual suspicion between Washington and Beijing, layering it with yet more trading in childish barbs over the origins of the virus and its handling by the respective governments.
President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have continued to refer to the ‘China virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’, with Pompeo saying that the use of such references is a form of payback for initial Chinese disinformation about the pandemic. Pompeo even tried – though with no success – to insist that the G7 adopt his usage of the phrase.
China for its part has expelled nearly all US nationals working for the Wall St Journal, Washington Post and New York Times. The result is that each is merely conforming to the other’s stereotype, further degrading a relationship already on edge.
The same kind of xenophobia towards Chinese citizens stemming from references to the ‘China virus’ has also been witnessed in Japan, the UK and Egypt. The arguments of some analysts – claiming this language is no different to the nomenclature of the ‘Spanish’ flu of 1918 or the ‘Middle East’ Respiratory Syndrome of 2012 – is sophistry at its purest.
It ignores entirely not only the toxic backdrop against which recent debates over Chinese influence and foreign interference have been conducted, but neglects also the inherent fears and anxieties that habitually accompany these kinds of outbreaks – whatever their origin.
There’s no dispute that China made grave mistakes and serious miscalculations in its original response to the outbreak of the virus. Nor is it in dispute that as Chinese authorities have made significant gains in containing its spread, they have sought to weave that progress into a narrative of command leadership and party strength.
Countries in the West can squirm at the chutzpah but why would such bravado be a surprise in an era when Xi Jinping has steadily been incorporating both domestic and foreign policy into a particularly assertive brand of Chinese exceptionalism?
Senior government figures in Australia have wisely resisted this kind of language and stereotyping. There are some claims that a ‘China spree’ – which saw Chinese-owned companies in Australia sourcing bulk supplies of medical equipment for shipping to Wuhan in January and February, when most thought the virus was limited to China – prompted the recent decision by the FIRB to scrutinise all foreign investments.
But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg insisted publicly that the decision is temporary, not directed at a particular country and further that that move should not be interpreted as a pulling up of Australia’s foreign investment drawbridge. Now that Australian cases of COVID-19 have risen dramatically, the government’s response is entirely reasonable.
Some former Australian leaders, however, have hastened to borrow from the scripture of Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser and arch protectionist. Navarro called in early March for the United States to ‘strengthen its public health industrial base, and defend our citizens, economy, and national security.’
He was bemoaning the reliance on overseas supplies of essential medicines and critical medical equipment, but the message was unmistakable: the virus presents another opportunity to ram home the dangers of foreign dependency.
Thus Labor’s Bill Shorten, speaking in parliament last week, called for Australia to make its own face masks and ventilators, but did so drawing on the rhetorical kitbag of the 1970s, claiming that the virus ‘makes it painfully clear just how exposed we are when we act as a colonial branch office of a global supply chain instead of an independent economic nation’.
Few would question the noble aspiration for domestic manufacturing of such necessities, but why wrap it in the archival film of old Australia?
Perhaps the most egregious example however came from former prime minister Tony Abbott, speaking in Japan in mid-March. Abbott told his hosts that the ‘real “China Virus”’ was ‘not the contagion sweeping out of the wet market of Wuhan, but our overdependence on just one country’.
This, he added, was Australia’s ‘deepest complacency, trading off long-term national security for short-term economic gain; giving up deep things for shallow ones’.
It is not clear how this kind of short-term, knee-jerk response assists policymakers in either navigating the crisis or its aftermath. Abbott wishes not only to ignore the economic realities of Australia’s prosperity over the last quarter-century, but to take the country down a much older time tunnel.
Where is the hard evidence to back the claim that Australia has traded off its national security? He may have thought that his message would resonate with his Japanese audience, but the Abe government has served up a useful lesson in terms of their ability to manage the Trump rollercoaster while not going out of their way to deliberately antagonise and alienate Beijing.
Alas however we can expect more to come from this quarter of the Australia-China debate: those pushing the language and imagery of the China ‘threat’ are already conflating the coming of the virus with their dominant narrative that Beijing poses an existential challenge to Australian security and prosperity.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has more than enough on his plate at the moment, but he will need to ensure such voices do not side-track him from managing Australia’s recovery, both at home and internationally, through diplomacy that alleviates the costs to it of bad blood between Beijing and Washington.
In meeting this ongoing challenge, the virus might also further stimulate new thinking about how the nation state sets about charting a unifying roadmap for the future, as well as rekindling faith in democratic government. And it is this that will likely define Scott Morrison’s prime ministerial legacy.
Part of this must surely mean that government decision making will need to better integrate the all too often siloed spheres of economic prosperity, health, national security and social harmony – all of which have been shown for some time, but especially in the midst of a crisis such as this, to be reinforcing of each other.
The risk is that the unprecedented, volatile and seismic dynamics of the coronavirus pull these dimensions of national and international governance apart. But it will be for present and future cabinets to stitch them firmly together anew. Morrison has a real opportunity here.
This will require an intellectual and administrative leap. If ever there was a moment for governments and leaders such as Morrison to seize the initiative, to craft a new narrative for national progress and establish a revitalised platform that will help drive the country to future success, it is surely now.
Communities do have a way of reconfiguring themselves for changing times – when they don’t disintegrate entirely – and the rise of nationalism itself in the nineteenth century was an example of this. Time will tell whether the coronavirus, notwithstanding the personal and economic havoc it wreaks, provides a historic moment of reset in both domestic and international institutions.
This pandemic again highlights that the nation-state has been struggling to adapt to the multi-varied challenges thrown up by the age of globalisation. Nevertheless it remains the key organising framework for the practice of government and ideas of community in an interconnected world.
Any progress towards a new narrative coming out of this crisis needs to take account of that reality. It will also need to prioritise the preservation of Australia’s openness to its region and the world, thereby eschewing the populist tendency to clothe new crises – even one as devastating as this – in the shabby robe of snarling nationalism.